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In my first semester as a Ph.D. student at Duke University, I remember reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s introduction to Epistemology of the Closet for a class. I was stunned to find, laid out in black and white, the major assumptions that the reader of her book needed to accept for the argument to work. This gesture of transparency and self-awareness struck me as a new graduate student and has stayed with me since.
That was more than 16 years ago. In the intervening time, my teaching and coaching work has shown me how crucial it can be to explicitly state our core beliefs about ourselves and our work—because we carry those beliefs into our job search, as well as into the arguments we make about ourselves as candidates.
In that spirit, I offer here my core beliefs for a new year of job searching. Graduate students and postdocs, you can successfully navigate the academic or expanded job market this year. But it will involve less angst, and possibly less time, if you accept the following statements as true.
You are enough. New year, new you? No. The first axiom of your job search should be that you have the right combination of knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed on the job market. You may not (yet) have the experience or the technical aptitude to qualify for your ideal role. That’s OK. Try adopting a strengths-based perspective on your work. Instead of focusing on the gaps you still need to fill, look at your list of accomplishments. Own them.
Your story needs to be edited. To write my dissertation, I read dozens of autobiographical texts. Writing or talking about yourself is hard. There are several ways to frame the truth of who you are and what you have done, and the primary consideration isn’t what you want to say but what you want your audience to understand. Just as a strong CV or résumé is not merely an unstructured list of everything you’ve ever accomplished, your cover letter and other job documents should provide a clear perspective on what your work means that aligns with what the employer is seeking.
Evidence always beats assessment. As Karen Kelsky has argued, the people reading your materials probably don’t know you and definitely don’t take your words at face value. “I am extremely skilled at curriculum design and student engagement in the co-curricular space” is a self-assessment of dubious value. In contrast, “I developed and grew a 100-hour co-curricular certificate program from zero to 250 participants in less than two years in my previous role” is a measure of achievement. Think of the last research paper you wrote. Arguments are not constructed on what you want to be true, but on what you can prove.
There are things you can’t do—yet. Most job ads represent a wish list and an opportunity for growth over time. If you’re interested and align reasonably well with the key parts of the role, apply. For example, in my current role, I manage the Graduate Student Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I have no other facilities management experience. However, taking undergraduate students abroad built up relevant transferrable skills such as negotiation, diplomacy, persuasion, communication, problem-solving and persistence. Instead of just listing those skills, I told the search committee how I once persuaded French customs to let a student with incomplete documentation into the country. You, too, have stories that convey what you can do.
It’s OK to want what you want. It’s also fine to want more than one thing, to change your mind, to be unsure. An individual development plan (humanities and social sciences, STEM) can help you structure the uncertainties of graduate school and your career. Not only is it a plan of action with measurable outcomes, but it also provides a framework for career exploration based on your interests, skills and values. If you are honest with yourself, you will find a multitude of options open up, along with a path forward to narrowing your career focus. You will also find suggestions of questions you can ask during your interviews to make sure that a given role truly aligns with your values.
You have options. You can change jobs, careers, fields, locations, levels of responsibility, institutions, pay bands, sectors, audiences, modalities and more. You can go forward in a straight line, make a U-turn, move laterally and follow the twists and turns that most of us experience throughout our professional lives. As much as the job search feels like a surrender of your autonomy, remember that you are always in charge of your half of the decision-making process. You do have control. You can make choices. You will be OK.
If you resolve to do one new thing in your job search this January, start by accepting these statements as true. Write your application materials from that perspective; answer interview questions from that perspective; negotiate from that perspective. See what happens.
Wishing you the best of luck in the new year.